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Woburn Gas Light and Coke Company

Woburn Gas Works about 1900 [Z50/135/55]
Woburn Gas Works about 1900 [Z50/135/55]

Archives Service staff member Alan Cirket wrote the following piece about the early history of gas supply to Woburn in 1976 [CRT130Woburn26]: “The former Woburn Gas Works was built just north of Leighton Street [in Timber Lane] and there is in the County Record Office, Bedford [now Bedfordshire and Luton Archives and Records Service] a copy of the specification and contract for “erecting and Completing Gas Works at Woburn …” made by Thomas Atkins, a gas engineer and contractor of Oxford, and dated 1850 [X454/22]. The specification is for a “necessary apparatus for producing Gas from Coal to comprise a Retort House, Coke, Lime and Purifying sheds, Gasholder, tank, and a Cottage for Workman … to be known by the name of the “Woburn Gas Light and Coke Company’s Works”. The work to be done is set out under various heads i.e. Excavator’s work; Masonry and bricklaying; Carpenter’s work; Plasterer’s work; Slater’s work; Ironmongery; Plumber’s, Painter’s and Glazier’s Work; Engineering; Town Regulator; Town Mains; Working Tools. This is followed by the contract between Thomas Atkins and the directors of the company “to erect fix and complete every part … of the specification … for the sum of One thousand Nine hundred pounds … the whole of the works to be completed in Three Months from the commencement”. £100 was to be held back by the company for six months “after the first night of lighting as a guarantee that the Works have been erected and finished in a business like manner”. The contractor was also to furnish rules and regulations to enable the directors “more effectually at all times to produce a pure cheap and brilliant light”, and give them any information they required for one year from the time of lighting so that the works could be conducted “in a thoroughly simple and effective manner and guard the … Directors against the ignorance that too often prevails in the management of newly erected Gas Works””.

“It is obvious that the Woburn Estate took advantage of the new company’s service for there are two receipts in the Russell Collection Woburn Establishment vouchers signed by Thomas Atkins “for laying down gas pipes to the Abbey & Park farm”. The first dated November 13th 1850 is for £300 and the second dated November 28th 1850 is for a further £200. Charles Hacker, in charge of the mechanics on the Woburn Establishment submits six “Journals of Mechanic’s Time” between September and December 1850. These included such items as on the 25th October “Prep[arin]g frame, cutting away Woodwork, boring & fitting Ironwork, making & fixing lamp irons, making, altering and glazing lamps, laying paving, cutting away, making good Brickwork, making good pitching, levelling Ground, digging out Ground & Building Gas Metre house”. A fortnight later the work included “… cutting away and making good floors, putting roof on gas metre house, preparing pattern and Ironwork for Brackets, turning stand, making and fixing lamp irons, painting glazing, and altering lamps, preparing & fixing Coping … cutting holes in stonework, and letting in pipes, making good plastering, cutting out and making good Brickwork …” The payments he certified amounted to £52 3d. 10d. Bricks to the value of £1 18s. 4d. were purchased from the Crawley Kiln, then owned by the estate, and various items to the value of £31 11s. 5d. were required from the estate “Store Stock” yard at Woburn”.

“A resume in the Woburn establishment Account Book for June 1851 sets out the whole of the work done by the contractor for which the estate paid “June 4th By Thomas Atkins for Contract & extras laying Gas mains from Woburn to the Parkfarm & Abbey, fitting Lights at the Abbey & at the Offices, Workshops, Mr. Bennett’s & Mr. Hacker’s houses at the Park farm £680 – 9d.

… fitting Gas Lights at Woburn Church £58 18s. 6d.
… fitting Gas Lights at Woburn market house £10 7s. 0d.
[Total] £749 6s. 3d.”

“As Atkins had already received the £500 mentioned above and a further £200 in February 1851 this left only £49 6s. 3d. for his final payment”.

“A letter from the contractor to the Woburn Gas Company in 1857 suggested that all was not well on the management side and that “every precaution should be taken to prevent the recurrence of any neglect on the part of the Manager in future”. He suggests various improvements, for which, of course, he will be responsible and which he will construct, and adds a note of warning – “ … if the irregularities complained of are allowed to continue it may end in the Duke’s discontinuing the use of your Gas and erecting a works for himself, this has been the case in many instances where Noblemen have been disappointed in receiving a regular supply of Gas from Public Companies”. He also regretted “that the simple rules laid down in the printed instructions I left with your Company are not more strictly adhered to … they were the result of many years hard labour … and … any deviation from them will entail not only extra labour on the man entrusted with the works but considerable disappointment both to the consumer and Shareholder”. He intends to write to John Hunter “informing him of the importance of attending to his duties … and unless the Company’s works be carried on in a … business like manner they will be … taking immediate steps to supersede him … they cannot allow their undertaking to be tampered with as their credit and responsibility is of too serious a nature to be placed in the hands of a man who at any time may subject the inhabitants without a moment’s notice to total darkness, in fact it is impossible that such proceedings can be any longer tolerated””.

The Rating and Valuation Act 1925 specified that every building and piece of land in the country was to be assessed to determine its rateable value. Woburn, like much of the county, was assessed in 1927 and the valuer visiting the gas works in Timber Lane [DV1/C126/110-111] found quite an impressive array of buildings covering just under a quarter of an acre. The buildings comprised:

  • Two gasholders (“900 and 25,000”);
  • Engine house (“natural gas engine 4½ h.p.”);
  • Town scrubber (“by C. & W. Walker, Newport”);
  • Washer;
  • 3 purifiers;
  • Station meter;
  • Range of sheds and buildings;
  • Brick and slate tar tank (“25 tons”);
  • Manager’s office;
  • 3 condensers;
  • Retort house;
  • Coal shed;
  • Wood and slate store shed;
  • Wood and slate workshop and stores.

The valuer noted that many homes in Woburn were still lit by gas at this time. In 1935 the Woburn Gas Light and Coke Company was sold to a G. Potter of Seaford [Sussex] who had offered shareholders £24 per share and offered to buy the gas works for £3,500 [X454/25]. This did not end the company which continued until the gasworks closed on 28th June 1949 [Z380/16].

Bedfordshire and Luton Archives and Records Service has the following records relating to the Woburn Gas Light and Coke Company:

  • R3/4832: a letter in which it was considered that gas light might be a useful addition to a night watchman for the security of Park Farm: 1844;
  • X454/22: deed of settlement: 29th October 1850;
  • X454/26: register of shareholders: c. 1850-1935;
  • X454/27: register of share transfers: 1851-1948;
  • X454/23: directors’ and shareholders’ minute book: 1859-1901;
  • Z380/1: particulars of connecting pipes required for the new gasholder: 1884;
  • Z380/2-3: plans of connecting pipes to the new gasholder: 1884;
  • Z380/4: contract for fitting pipes to the new gasholder: 1884;
  • X67/268: Woburn Gas Light and Coke Company 34th annual report: 1884;
  • Z380/5-7: various receipted bills made out to and by the company: 1896-1900;
  • X454/28: letters and papers: 1897-1948;
  • Z380/8: memorandum of agreement to employ Charles Howard as a gas fitter: 1900;
  • X454/24: directors’ and shareholders’ minute book: 1901-1915;
  • Z380/9, 11: testimonials for Charles Howard: 1902-1903;
  • Z380/12: provisional specification for a patent by Charles George Howard for holding two lengths of pipe to each other whilst being joined up: 1911;
  • X454/25: directors’ and shareholders’ minute book: 1915-1935;
  • Z380/13: memorandum of agreement making Charles Howard working manager of the gas works: 1915;
  • Z380/14: testimonial for Charles Howard: 1922;
  • Z380/15: agreement regarding Charles Howard’s employment as manager: 1935;
  • Z380/16: letters from Charles Howard to Bedford District Gas Company and Eastern Gas Board on the closure of the Woburn gasworks: 1949.

The location of Woburn gas works in Timber Lane [DV2/B24]
The location of Woburn gas works in Timber Lane [DV2/B24]